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Rolex Air King pedigree is rich in history and covers many years. It is one of the cleanest designed Rolex Watches out there; and is beloved by its followers because of such simplicity. It’s practical & rugged look and feel can only be reviled by another Rolex model, the Rolex Explorer. Many men of distinction have been known to wear Rolex – in particular the Air King; in fact, war hero and US Senator John McCain in known for wearing his Rolex Air King daily. The history of the Rolex Air King is quite extensive and is the most documented of any Rolex model.
The British Royal Air Force were regarded as heroes in the 1930’s – and rightfully so. These men flew countless missions, and in the face of danger – triumphed in spite of overwhelming odds. Discarding their standard issued watches; these brave pilots instead used the Rolex Oyster Perpetual religiously in their missions. Once word of this reached the founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, he was so inspired that he chose to honor these heroes by creating a dedicated line of manual wind Oyster watches that were fit for the sky.
While this line was in existence before the war, Rolex started producing bigger watches and gave them names such as “Rolex Air Lion”, “Rolex Air Tiger”, “Rolex Air King” and even “Rolex Air Giant”. As these names suggest, people at the time thought the air-line to be large watches. However, it is interesting to see the evolution of such perceptions, as a 32-33 mm diameter dial is no longer considered a large watch. However at the time, it was considered huge. In the end, most of this line never became popular with the general public. However, Rolex decided to continue a single model within this line, the “Rolex Air King”.
Rolex continued producing the “Air” (fit for flight) watches, but it was the Rolex Air King which remained popular well into the 1960’s. The thing many Rolex enthusiasts appreciate about the Air King is its simplicity and history. While it is simple, it can come in many forms – which gives enthusiasts all the more pleasure in wearing and collecting their Rolex Air King. One of the most iconic Air King models is the Air King 5500. The Rolex Air King 5500 history covers 37 years. For a majority of these years, the Rolex Air King 5500 was left unchanged and was considered to be a classic and very coveted model.
The 5500 was introduced in 1957 and used a caliber 1520 or 1530 movement but due to import laws, the jewels were reduced in the 1520. The 1520 was either 17 (US market) or 26 jewels (every other market). The 1530 had 17, 25 or 26 jewel variants. The movement type was denoted on the dial with the text Precision or no text for the 1520 and Super Precision for the 1530. Many dials were used during the long 37 year production run. Today, some are extremely rare, especially the "double red". This dial was an early production dial with the words Air-King and Super Precision in red.
After the 5500 long and mostly unchanged 37 year run, the Air-King line was upgraded to a sapphire crystal and new cal 3000 movement. This new Air-King was rechristened with the reference number 14000. Refreshed versions of the 5500 dials carried on with new 3/6/9 Explorer style dials following shortly after. This reference also marked the introduction of the engine turned bezel, reference 14010. The 14000 series received the cal 3130 movement in 2000 and the change was noted in the reference number with the letter M for Modified.
The Rolex Air King is currently one of the longest continuously manufactures models within Rolex. It is also one of the most affordable watches in the line-up; priced new at around $5000 USD – further evidence of its military tough practicality.
Adam J. Dubilo, founder of Adam Vintage
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